Bridge of Spies review: Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks go back in time and make Cold War fun
Even though it's set in the past, the themes that Spielberg discusses in Bridge of Spies are still relevant, like capital punishment, the irony in the justice system and the need for humane treatment of a captured enemy.
How many times has Steven Spielberg been involved in a film based on historic events? It certainly feels like a recurring motif in the award-winning director's long career. Bridge of Spies is the latest historical in Spielberg's list and it feels, as it should, like a confident and reassuring piece of storytelling. Written by the Coen brothers, who ensure the screenplay doesn't drag the film down (a fatal flaw in some of Spielberg's past films), Bridge of Spies is a surefooted World War 2 drama.
James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is an insurance lawyer during the Cold War. One day, he's handed a unique little case. The CIA has caught a Soviet spy named Abel (Mark Rylance) in the States and Donovan is given the opportunity to be his defence lawyer. Since this is 1960, with the Cold War at its coldest, Americans don’t get why a spying scumbag like Abel should be defended at all. But someone has to do the dirty job, and Donovan gets the seemingly short straw. But he quickly realizes that there’s more to Abel than meets the eye and that it might not be a great idea to execute him.
Even though it's set in the past, the themes that Spielberg discusses in Bridge of Spies are still relevant, like capital punishment, the irony in the justice system and the need for humane treatment of a captured enemy. It doesn’t delve too deep into the themes though – questions are raised using Spielberg's favourite device of the heroic male mouthpiece and his family values. There are stray references to the Berlin Wall and a visual here and there to highlight how people were shot dead even in '60s' Europe. But none of this feels ugly. It’s all beautifully done because cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn and composer Thomas Newman — all old-timers in Spielberg’s gang — are doing that thing they do so well. Some of the shots of chilly, snowy Berlin atmosphere are effective enough to make you want to grab a sweater.
Bridge of Spies is also lighter in tone than you expect it to be. This film would have been a far darker comedy had the Coens directed the film themselves. There are unexpected laughs to be had courtesy of Hanks’ timing and Spielberg’s charming direction. There’s a great scene in which Donovan heads down to Berlin for a negotiation with the Soviets and he’s caught in a diplomatic crossfire between the Russians and the Germans. Another hilarious scene has Donovan mistaking various people for a certain lawyer who doesn’t show up until Donovan is convinced he doesn’t exist. There’s even a funny little moment concerning his daughter who was stood up on a date.
The downside, however, is that there is little suspense in Bridge of Spies. Everything is so neat, it never feels as if anything is at stake here. There’s so much optimism at play thanks to Spielberg’s direction, you’re convinced the good guy will become a national hero in the end. You never doubt Donovan’s actions nor do you ever see him in any real danger. He’s so perfect he’s almost a superhero, only made to look human because of cosmetic additions of sneezing because of the chill in snowy Berlin.
Hollywood often whitewashes characters in this manner, and Bridge of Spies is no exception. There’s no way Donovan managed to get through national ridicule and complex spy missions without a single misstep, but we’ll never know because Spielberg refuses to risk humanizing a human being.
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